May 09, 2015

Shoot Out the Lights

They've been making an effort to improve the traffic light system in my neck of the woods (North Oakland/Temescal.) And by "improve" I mean, gradually making it more and more complicated. They keep adding new lights and varying the pattern in which the various signals and combinations of signals are deployed, presumably with the goal of providing in an ordered sequence an unobstructed and uncontested free route for every conceivable traffic action, vehicular and pedestrian. And while these specific permissions protocols cycle through, one by one (though in no necessarily predictable order), all other activity must cease.

For pedestrians, this means waiting at the corner to cross the street for longer and longer periods. There's a button to push, and it lights up to indicate that it knows you have pushed it, but it clearly has no other effect than lighting up. The traffic lights go through their various combinations of flashing, like the computer banks in Adam West's Bat Cave, the cars creep by, each waiting for its turn, four versions of left turn, four versions of right turn, everything else halting while each of the Byzantine variations gets its chance; and the don't walk guy on the display is a solid red for... ages and ages. A taunting electronic voice says "wait" over and over. The chirping bird sound, intended I have to assume to let blind people know when it's safe to cross -- it always makes me wonder what mayhem might be caused by a mischievous or merely oblivious real life bird -- well, it never seems to chirp. It is all done, I'm sure, in the spirit of efficiency and safety.

But here's what happens in the real world. People on their way to the BART station worry about missing their train, figure the system is broken or simply get tired of waiting, throw up their hands, and cross against the light. Others see them doing this and run across themselves. And there is now an unofficial pedestrian folk culture of ignoring the lights entirely. They just cross and hope for the best, shaking their heads at the suckers who are still waiting, pushing and pushing the placebo-like walk button.

And the more complicated the system, the more routines and variations they add, the more frequently it all seems to break down mechanically or electronically. This situation is indicated by all lights flashing red. Then it's just a free for all, where cars and pedestrians alike put their heads down and zoom across hoping not to get hit by a bus. Because there is no other choice.

Usually they fix these physical breakdowns within a day, but there was one time recently when for whatever reason they didn't. Instead they put up makeshift simple four way stop signs, on poles set in temporary portable concrete foundations.

And this was to miraculous effect. Pedestrians and drivers had to use their judgement instead of blindly following a seeming irrational system of brain dead, needlessly complex permissions and prohibitions. And I have no doubt that everyone, drivers and pedestrians, got through the intersection more quickly, more efficiently, and with less aggravation and anxiety than we all have when the system "works." (And for what it's worth, though it's not a good "sample" and is just from personal observation, there were no accidents that I ever saw during this period; on the other hand, crashes are pretty frequent when all systems are go.) When it happens again, I'll consider myself lucky, as crossing the street will have become, however briefly, a less vexing experience. You know, it's the little things.

So of course, I'm going to draw a cutesy moral here. The more complicated and restrictive the rules, the more difficult they will be to maintain and enforce, the less people tend to respect them, and the less likely they are to follow them in the end. And sometimes simple, easily understood systems that leave room for judgement are better. You could apply this to all sorts of things, but hey, what about: taxes? Shoot out the lights.

Posted by Dr. Frank at May 9, 2015 04:29 PM